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How To Improve Digestion with Healthy Eating

Updated on November 3, 2012
Changes in your diet can actually ease digestive discomfort
Changes in your diet can actually ease digestive discomfort | Source

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, around 70 million people in the U.S. alone are experiencing some kind of digestive problem. That's a large number!

Most of us have dealt with this issue, either in a mild or more intense version, and it's no wonder. Our daily lives are fast and full, and we juggle both home and work responsibilities. Busy-ness, stress or fatigue can lead us to grab our meals and rush through them, or skip them altogether.

As someone who has dealt with lingering digestive issues, I can attest to the effect that kind of lifestyle has on the body. For years I lived on "convenience" food, and for just as long I had stomach discomfort and sluggishness. After years of looking for a wonder cure, I finally came to a realization: what we eat and how we eat both have a tremendous impact on digestive health.

This is good news. It means you have the power to make changes in your eating habits that will help ease and even regulate some symptoms of digestive trouble.

Do A Quick Check-In

Have you experienced any of these common digestive issues? Adjusting your diet can go a long way toward easing the symptoms.

  • Constipation (Possible causes: lack of water in the body)
  • Diarrhea (Possible causes: certain foods that stimulate the intestines; foods that have not been stored or prepared properly)
  • Heartburn or GERD (Possible Causes: various foods or drinks that trigger difficulty in the esophagus; extra weight; stress)
  • Food Intolerance (Possible causes: certain foods, such as dairy products or beans)

Note: Certain conditions need professional medical treatment. Always start bygetting a check-up, diagnosis and recommendations from your doctor before making any big changes on your own.

Eat a variety of fiber-rich foods.
Eat a variety of fiber-rich foods. | Source
Food diaries shed light on eating patterns.
Food diaries shed light on eating patterns. | Source

Making Positive Changes

Step One: Become Aware

Keep a food journal for 5 to 7 days, jotting down everything you take in each day - snacks as well as meals. Also, take note of any digestive troubles you have, marking the time.

This may seem like busywork, but you're actually gathering important data. Looking at your food choices and their results may show patterns that are causing you harm. (For instance, seeing that you have gassiness after eating ice cream or cheese may reveal a dairy intolerance you didn't know about. )

Journalling gave me a more complete picture of my own issues, including a lactose sensitivity and IBS, and foods that triggered the problems. All my discomfort suddenly made a lot more sense!

Great results can add up quickly from healthy substitutions.
Great results can add up quickly from healthy substitutions. | Source

Step 2: Do The Math

If you've ruled out any major issues, improving your digestive health becomes a matter of simple mathematics - subtracting some foods out of your diet while adding others in. This isn't to say you can never eat a favorite "trigger food" again. But once you feel better, you may rethink the indulgence.

Items to Subtract

This is a general list of offending foods. Add any others to your list as you discover them.

1. White flour - Used in many other baking mixes and pre-made desserts, white flour is basically wheat flour that has been bleached and has had the fiber processed out. Some call it the "glue of the gut" because it clogs up the intestines and brings on constipation.

2. Sugar (Lactose, Fructose, Sorbitol, Galactose) - Several types of sugar have the potential to cause digestive problems in those sensitive to them. Symptoms can range from gas and bloat to diarrhea.

3. Fried and fatty foods - Both these kinds of items can either race or move very sluggishly through the body. Either diarrhea or constipation can result.

Veggie sticks, potato wedges and garlic aioli
Veggie sticks, potato wedges and garlic aioli | Source

A Jump Start for adding fiber into your day:

- Add a 1/2 of fresh berries to breakfast cereal, or to top pancakes.

- Pack 1 cup of carrot, green pepper and celery sticks for lunch, or as a healthy snack to munch during the day.

- Use 2/3 cup of brown rice instead of white rice for dinner.

Items to Add

1. Fiber - Fiber is indigestible part of plant-based foods. You've heard the news before, and it's true - getting more fiber into your diet really does regulate digestion (as an added bonus, it also lowers LDL cholesterol and helps regulate sugar in the blood).

How much do you need?

Adult men should get 38 grams a day and women need about 25. The amount is lower in children, teens, and seniors. (The USDA website provides intake recommendations as well as a list of foods with their fiber content.)

What are the best sources of fiber?

  • Fruits and vegetables (fresh, frozen or canned)
  • Whole grains (brown rice, steel cut oatmeal, whole grain pasta)
  • Beans and legumes (kidney, black or white beans, lentils and peas for example)
  • Nuts and Seeds (namely walnuts, almonds and sunflower)

Note: Just remember to add extra fiber into your diet gradually. Your body needs time to adjust to avoid getting extra gassiness, too!


Cannellini beans - packed with fiber and protein
Cannellini beans - packed with fiber and protein | Source

2. Water

Our bodies are about 75% water, and we lose this vital liquid through our everyday functions. Our digestive systems are especially dependent on water to ensure the proper amount of acid to break down and get the nutrients from the food we eat.

How much do you need?

Most experts recommend drinking at least 8 glasses of fluid a day. Water and decaffeinated coffee and tea count toward this goal.

Step 3: incorporate Other Ideas

1. Eat smaller meals

If you have trouble after a big regular meal, consider spreading out your eating. The stomach tends to handle small amounts of food more readily, which may ease gas and bloating, as well as the "after dinner sleepiness".

2. Create a serene dining space

Eating while we are feeling stress is a sure way to invite digestive trouble. Carve out at least 20 minutes for your meal (start with dinner), and clear the dining area of clutter. Then take a couple of deep breaths before you begin eating.

3. Eat more slowly

Kids aren't the only ones who need reminding to chew our food before we swallow! We can actually help our digestion by chewing things more thoroughly. And eating more slowly gives you a chance to savor each bite.

4. Make each meal colorful

Design your plate with foods of different colors and hues. That not only makes for an appealing look, but ensures you're getting a big variety of fiber in your diet.

Comments

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    • profile image

      Heather63 

      6 years ago

      Hi Jeff - thanks for the comments! I have always been on to eat too fast myself, and I missed so many good flavors when I did that. There's something about letting the body relax during meals that makes a big difference. Good for you making healthy changes!

    • Jeff Gamble profile image

      Jeff Gamble 

      6 years ago from Denton, Texas

      Super tips, there are a few that I'm going to use - eating more slowly being one. Thanks for the info heather, great hub.

    • Heather63 profile imageAUTHOR

      Heather Adams 

      6 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      Thanks for the comments. I know what you mean about content. I don't always write articles this long, but sometimes there's just so much to cover about a subject it's hard to stop! Plus, I love doing research and can get carried away...

    • akirchner profile image

      Audrey Kirchner 

      6 years ago from Washington

      Good info, Heather and concisely presented. Yikes, I think I'll be in trouble over the word content from the beginning! I think I try and cover too much in 1 article. Great info though and definitely all true, true and true.

    • profile image

      Heather63 

      6 years ago

      I know it's no fun going through tests. Just a thought - check out your sugar intake. I dealt with a bout of awful fatigue - like literally dozing off during the day - and it ended up partly being taking in too much refined sugar. You probably aren't having that much in your diet, but it's worth checking on.

    • kissayer profile image

      Kristy Sayer 

      6 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      I only know some of what's going on - the rest is still a mystery! I'm feeling better but am still nauseous and fatigued daily so it's time for the professionals to have a stab at it (literally! eek!)

    • Heather63 profile imageAUTHOR

      Heather Adams 

      6 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      Good detective work on your part! I'm glad you already know what's going on - I didn't get a clue for many years. And once I knew I really went overboard trying to eat better, and still didn't feel better. Luckily, I have a pretty good sense now of what foods to avoid as well as eat. But I still miss ice cream!!

    • kissayer profile image

      Kristy Sayer 

      6 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Excellent hub! I have an insane list of food intolerances, coeliac disease, IBS as well as too many other issues and I found keeping a food diary was the best way for me to figure out what was causing my issues. With IBS I also found that I was actually eating too much fibre and it was only irritating my upset stomach more.

    • Heather63 profile imageAUTHOR

      Heather Adams 

      6 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      Thanks for the comments, Joseph! Your absolutely right - spending the time and attention to your diet now will really pay off. I totally understand the concerns about a tight budget though - I'm on one as well. Grocery shopping can feel a little like juggling sometimes!

    • Joseph Howard profile image

      Joseph Howard 

      6 years ago from Bowling Green, Kentucky

      These are some spot-on recommendations, especially for lowly college students on a budget like myself. I think a lot of people go for this "convenience diet" when on a budget, but we often forget that healthy foods bought in bulk and prepared correctly will help with out digestion to make our lives better now and in the future.

      Great hub, and I look forward to more!

    • Heather63 profile imageAUTHOR

      Heather Adams 

      6 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      You really can get too much fiber in a day. I've made the mistake of eating too many veggies in one day, and felt uncomfortable as a result. I agree though, summer is a great time for fruit - just make sure you're eating a balance of other foods, too.

    • kikalina profile image

      kikalina 

      6 years ago from Europe

      This heat is making me eat too much fruit. Watermelon in particular. I wonder if an excess of fruit can be harmful too!

    • Heather63 profile imageAUTHOR

      Heather Adams 

      6 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      Hi, and thanks for the comments! Getting the right balance is certainly a process, but every extra bit makes a positive difference.

    • Pamela-anne profile image

      Pamela-anne 

      6 years ago from Miller Lake

      Thanks for sharing these healthy tips I think I myself need more fibre in my own diet. take care pam.

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